Correcting Illusions of Reform

A new book gathers the counter-arguments made against a recent attack on the traditional Latin Mass.

Illusions of Reform, Ed. Peter Kwasniewski (Os Justi, 2023) 222 pp.

Illusions of Reform is a response to a five-part article by three Catholic theologians, John Cavadini, Mary Healy, and Thomas Weinandy, OFM, Cap (hereafter CHW), published in Church Life Journal last year. The article series totalled more than 20,000 words and seemed intended as a major contribution to the debate, the co-authors lending it the combined weight of their prestige as established theologians.

Sadly, they and Church Life Journal declined to allow their article to be reproduced in this book, and the authors did not wish to make a formal reply. The fact is that the responses reproduced in this book reveal embarrassing weaknesses in CHW’s article.

None of the three authors is a specialist in the liturgy. Dr. Cavadini is an expert in “patristic theology and in its early medieval reception.” Dr. Healy is a Scripture scholar—a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, no less—with a sideline in Pentecostal-Catholic dialogue. Fr. Weinandy writes principally about Christology, Soteriology, and the Trinity. He was a theological advisor to the U.S. Bishops’ Conference until his courageous open letter to Pope Francis on Amoris Laetitia put him on the naughty step. 

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I hope all three continue to make their valuable contributions to their areas of expertise. But what rush of blood to the head led them to enter the Church’s most contested and embittered area of debate? They did this, furthermore, not to give their personal impressions or an outsider’s perspective but to dish out a series of insults, based on what turns out to be patently false factual claims and uncharitable speculation about others’ motivations and spiritual states.

So shockingly awful, in fact, is the net result of their collaboration that I am reminded of painful forays of the militant atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins into theology, about which he evidently knows precisely nothing. Dawkins has a low opinion of theology; CHW, by contrast, profess to think that liturgy is an important study, and they only want to be rude to one side in the debate. They end up, perhaps inevitably, making themselves obnoxious to both.

Thus, they acknowledge that the reformed Mass is, in practice, seriously problematic and needs to be revised. As Dom Alcuin Reid notes in his contribution to Illusions of Reform, this idea has been rejected as unthinkable by the Dicastery for Divine Worship—and was even in the days of Pope Benedict.

It is partly official hostility to the “Reform of the Reform” that has made so many of its erstwhile advocates reconsider their position and embrace the Traditional Mass, but CHW don’t seem to have noticed. Instead, as Dr. Janet Smith points out, they urge Catholics attached to the TLM to give it up in exchange for a mirage, a liturgy that does not exist and, barring some miracle, never will.

Dr. Smith and Dr. Kwasniewski point out CHW’s extraordinary claim that the TLM is 400 years old, dating only from the Council of Trent. I know this used to be said frequently in anti-traditionalist polemics. But by serious scholars, in 2022? Long before now it has been possible for anyone who possesses both a pulse and an internet connection to view the first printed edition of the Roman Missal of 1475 and compare it with the version printed following Trent in 1570, or indeed the 1962 Missal on any sacristy shelf. The 1475 Missal, of course, is not the product of any reform, and it reflects Missals going back to the 13th century and beyond.

Another claim that is simply unsupportable today, though often made up to about ten years ago, is the idea that the reformed Mass was the longed-for product of the Liturgical Movement and the debate of the Council Fathers. CHW apparently has no idea that the memoirs and biographies of various key players have been published, let alone actually read them, or taken the trouble to look over the Acta of the Council, now available online, where they can read the Council Fathers’ firm rejection of a fully vernacular Mass. This kind of silly stuff just doesn’t wash any more.

Another claim that, one would hope, would be rejected by CHW if they had applied the most cursory thought and research is that the Traditional Mass is insufficiently Trinitarian. Peter Kwasniewski points out numerous ways in which the Trinitarian nature of liturgical prayer is emphasized in the older Missal: a prominent example is the use of the gloriously Trinitarian Preface of Trinity Sunday on most Sundays of the year.

This nonsense would be harmless enough if it were not for the prestige of the authors (which may give these worn-out tropes a new lease of life) and the way they are made the basis for insults. Thus, CHW confidently assert that the faithful before Vatican II had no real participation in the Mass. Again, this is a claim that used to be made unthinkingly by all sorts of people, but the debate has moved on. 

On what basis can CHW claim that today’s Mass-goers are more engaged? Certainly not by reference to their practice, their grasp of Catholic teaching, or their disinclination to lapse. On what basis can CHW imply that Catholics were not encouraged to unite themselves with the sacrifice of the Mass? Certainly not on the basis of official exhortations and popular devotional manuals, which, as Dr. Kwasniewski shows, use very much the same language before, during, and after the Council. 

At the same time, those features of the older liturgy which are supposedly barriers to participation are also found in many Eastern Rites, as Alexander Battista points out in his contribution. Writing as if the Christian East did not exist, one might have hoped, was a thing of the past for respected Latin theologians; but not, it seems, for CHW.

The parallel with the Eastern Rites is reiterated in Fr. Peter Miller’s thoughtful contribution on the issue of the Lectionary. Fr. Miller’s expression of the problem is extremely acute, but CHW would have picked up something of the problem if they had read Fr. Jonathan Robinson’s The Mass and Modernity, which was published as long ago as 2005. Crude comparisons of the quantity of Scripture in the two lectionaries obscures the question of what the readings are for: the Lectionary should be liturgical. As Fr. Miller puts it, it is not about giving us long stories but, rather, picking out references and themes relevant to the day or season: something the lectio continua system is not very good at doing. Perhaps CHW could have come up with a great response to this line of argument, but they just haven’t noticed it.

There is a great deal in Illusions of Reform which helpfully elucidates and pinpoints the status quaestionis of the liturgical debate in a thorough and fair-minded way. I recommend it as a prophylactic against lazy and outdated arguments too often still heard on the internet. It would also serve as an excellent primer of the arguments and attitudes of those who defend the Traditional Mass to any group of non-specialist academics who plan to intervene in this debate, who might be tempted to assert their prejudices on the basis of half-understood and outdated arguments and information.


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